Saturday, January 24, 2009

Should schooling be compulsory?

My wife is attending a terrific conference, Educon 2.1, the 2nd annual, sponsored by the Science Leadership Academy here in Philly. It's a gathering of progressive educators, talking a lot about the future of education and they talk/act a lot about integrating Web 2.0 practices. (A number of them are live-blogging and live-Twittering the conference.)

Last night, I joined my wife to attend the keynote panel at the Franklin Institute, entitled "What is the purpose of school?" It was a really impressive group of panelists, including African-American scholar Molefi Asante who has authored over 65 books; Jeff Han, inventor of the multi-touch screen; and Stephen Squyrers, Principal Investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. Their comments and subsequent discussion were very interesting, and I'm glad I went. BUT, I'm disappointed that this powerful panel discussion, within this really progressive conference, never even questioned the premise of compulsory schooling.

The idea of compulsory schooling is so ingrained, so taken for granted that we fail to remember that it is less than 300 years old -- the tiniest of slivers of human history. Its logic is compelling and attractive: "We need compulsory schooling to prepare young people for a complex world. And, besides, what else would we do with all those kids?" And I don't have an easy answer for that (certainly not conveniently contained within a blog post). But lots of others have been thinking about this. I'm sensitive to it because my undergraduate honors thesis 30 years ago (yikes!) focussed on three authors (Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire and John Holt) who boldly and lucidly questioned compulsory schooling.

And, now, a just-published book by John Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction, apparently does the same. I haven't read a book about education for many years. But I've become aware that I'm not hearing anybody around me raise the issue of compulsory schooling. And, my own ability to articulate the arguments is rusty. Maybe time to get the book. (And if anyone else has read it, please let me know what you thought.)

1 comment:

Marie said...

Compulsory education is the primary reason that secondary education gets reduced to babysitting. High School students are very aware that they don't have a choice. Many of my students have been to truancy court and are occupying space at school against their will.

Students who are at school against their will help to create an atmosphere of disregard to education. If the community feels it needs a place to keep people below age 16 or 17, it should be another place, not school. Then school would be a place that is chosen. The availability of choice will automatically make change the atmosphere of school. School could again be about education rather than babysitting.